The Significance of Apple’s Silicon Shift

Reasons for a move from Intel to Arm are not single-threaded

On Monday, Apple kicked off its 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Apple was forced to think different this time, running this year’s show as a virtual and more inclusive event. See Instant Insight: Apple Unveils Own Mac Chips at WWDC for more detailed analysis.

The most significant announcement was that Apple will start to use its own Arm-based processors in upcoming Mac computers. News of a new silicon strategy wouldn’t normally take centre stage. However, the involvement of two of the world’s largest technology companies, and the significant implications for developers and the future of computing meant the announcement has grabbed all the headlines.

Apple announced that it will start to shift away from Intel chips in Macs over the next two years. Apple CEO Tim Cook said that more Intel-based Macs are “in the pipeline” and Apple would continue to support macOS on Intel for “years to come”. Intel has been supplying processors for Apple’s Mac line of computers since 2005 when the company moved away from IBM-designed PowerPC CPUs.

The first of the new Macs powered by Apple’s in-house silicon will be available before the end of the year. Apple said that this will be a PC with a system-on-chip optimized for macOS Big Sur, the latest version of its computer operating system.

Although Apple executives didn’t specifically highlight Arm during the keynote presentation, Apple’s Bionic chips are based on Arm’s architecture. This means that its Mac processors will use the same silicon technology used in Apple-designed iPhones and iPads.

CCS Insight has long believed it wasn’t a question of if, but when Apple would make the move. Apple has made enormous investments in Arm silicon design and made it a cornerstone of the performance and differentiation of its iPhone and iPad products. It’s logical that it extends the capability of its “A” series processors beyond iOS.

Apple will gain a lot of flexibility and agility when it comes to future products. The move also cuts the risk of being tied to Intel’s processor plans and its fabrication schedule, the latter of which has suffered delays with the transition to 10 nm processes. Although Apple remains reliant on TSMC or Samsung for manufacturing, it is customer number one thanks to the sheer number of “A” series chips being made and has priority access to leading-edge nodes. Indeed, TSMC’s rise has been built on the success of the iPhone. Apple can now deliver that benefit to its Mac products as well as the iPhone and iPad.

Apple’s stature in the chip market plays a large part in the power consumption and performance advances it believes it can deliver compared with Intel chips. Although Apple didn’t provide benchmark comparisons, its “A” series chips have consistently outperformed the competition. Performance in the iPad has proven that it’s more than capable of rivalling Intel in computing. We highlighted Apple’s leadership in Arm CPU design in our analysis of Arm’s motivation for its Cortex-X Custom initiative (see Arm’s New Programme for Custom Chips).

The ability to run iOS apps natively on macOS is also a big step to ensure the long-term relevance and competitiveness of the platform. Similarly, Apple’s reticence to incorporate cellular connectivity in the Mac should be quickly addressed by the move to Arm. We predict the first Arm-based Macs will be highly mobile designs that take the fight back to Microsoft and its partners. Still, the move isn’t without risk.

Microsoft is the blueprint for the potential and the pitfalls of introducing Arm to the PC market. It tried to force the move prematurely with Windows RT, but its tight collaboration with Qualcomm is finally bearing fruit. Apple’s vertical integration should make this an easier undertaking but there will inevitably be difficulties. Announcing months before the first Arm-based Macs appear is crucial to getting developers on board, testing and, where necessary, recompiling.

The new Rosetta 2 dynamic binary translator will serve as a stepping stone by allowing x86 apps to run on Arm Macs, but the practical reality will inevitably see difficulties. Apple’s clear communication of a two-year timeline is designed to shift developers to native Arm apps as quickly as possible. The new Universal 2 application binaries will enable software to run on both Arm and Intel processors. In my view, the success of Apple’s strategy will hinge on how quickly and smoothly it can complete the transition rather than any performance comparisons between different types of processor.

Of course, it’s not just Apple that’s switching to Arm-based processors. Microsoft, Qualcomm and partners are pushing the Windows ecosystem toward Arm with increasingly capable machines running Snapdragon silicon. However, Apple’s end-to-end control of hardware and software is a big advantage and is likely to further the success of its silicon investments. Apple’s moves will help validate Arm-based chips for personal computing and even in the data centre, meaning the whole Arm ecosystem will benefit. This, rather than the loss of the Mac business, is the longer-term concern for Intel.